In the span of five minutes, it felt as if my mom and I left Pittsburgh and arrived in medieval Poland. It was a crisp morning in 2018, and we were sitting in a car at the bottom of the Machsikei Hadas Cemetery, in Reserve Township, with lines of graves built on top of graves above us. Our car sat about 6 feet below the first line of tombstones. “Joe,” said my mom, Debby Tepper Glick, “I’ve seen some haunted graveyards in this town, but this place takes the cake.”
Over the years, my mom’s tried to visit all the family graves in Western Pennsylvania. Our family has been in the Pittsburgh region, on and off, for six generations. There are a lot of people, living and dead, to keep track of.
My mom’s energy was good that day. After being diagnosed with stage-IV lung cancer in February, she was months into a treatment that has continued to keep her cancer from growing and spreading. We were on the hunt for my great-great uncle Myer. Myer was the youngest of six siblings. All we knew about his life was that he died in his twenties, in a 1928 flu epidemic, a little over a decade after our family had immigrated from Poland to Pittsburgh.
As we looked at the cemetery rising above us, I had a sense of dizzying vertigo. The grounds were clearly well maintained, but also seemingly impossible to maintain. With the steep hill claustrophobic with tombstones, it was difficult to understand what prevented the entire cemetery from collapsing.
We found Myer’s grave after only a few minutes of looking. It was a colossal stone, shaped like a tree trunk, looming over its neighbors. As I stood looking up at Myer’s gravestone, I was struck by the dissonance with my family’s image of itself.
I had grown up, as had several generations of my family, on a narrative of our people’s progress in America. My grandparents relegated old world sorrows and new immigrant struggles to a sort of prehistory. In the stories they chose to tell, they built a narrative wall that kept their children and grandchildren focused not on mourning our family’s past sorrows, but on celebrating our success.
Myer’s gravestone, though, towered over this wall; for the first time, I felt the texture and realness of my family’s immigrant history. How, I wondered, did my great-great uncle come to have the fanciest gravestone in the humblest cemetery?
This question has led to years of research, of asking elders for stories and archivists for records. The narrative that emerged is that of a family lovingly — literally and figuratively — burying its skeletons. While my family’s history is partially a story of forgetting, it is also a story of generations of volunteers who lovingly buried and cared for our embodied past.
The oldest stories I know from this side of the family start not with Myer, but with his oldest brother, Morris. My grandma remembered her uncle Morris as the richest and savviest of her elders, the one who owned his own shop, owned his own car, the big macher of the family. There was one other thing about Morris; he was a moonshiner. My great aunt remembered being mortified to go to school after one of the family’s “businesses” was busted by local police. The first mention I can find of Morris’ booze running comes in a 1922 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The police confiscated $6,000 (about $100,000 in 2022 money) of liquid merchandise from Morris.
Morris’ name appears at least once a year for the next four years in the Pittsburgh press, as his business continued to receive attention from law enforcement. A Pittsburgh Daily Post article from 1924 provides the most colorful description of Morris’ run-in with the police:
Morris Toig was in the men’s furnishing business. He aimed to please. Yesterday, Constable C. H. Wanner of Coraopolis and two state troopers walked into his store in Chartiers Ave., a half block from the McKees Rocks police station and began to go over his stock. One box on the well-filled shelves held socks. Another held moonshine, says Constable Wanner. …. When the officers left, they took along 45 gallons, 62 pints and 204 half-pints of Morris’ stock.
I grew up inheriting my elders’ pride and bemusement that our nerdy and law-abiding clan descended from these conspicuous rule breakers (my mom keeps a framed copy of the news story in her home).
Ten days after Morris’ third arrest for selling alcohol, his mother died. If there’s a wall separating my generation from our immigrant heritage, that wall is particularly tall and sturdy around the memory of our great-great grandmother. Great-great grandma Fredich — sometimes called Fannie — died at Mayview, the state psychiatric hospital (and formerly debtors prison). She had lived for a year and two months at Mayview after being diagnosed with senile paraplegia, an impairment of leg strength that was then viewed as “hysterical” in nature. When I asked my mom about Fredich’s admission to Mayview, she responded, “That rings a bell. I believe that’s one of the family secrets.”
Were my ancestors ashamed that their mother suffered from a “hysterical” illness, or that they were unable to care for her at home, or that she died in a “poor farm” or all of the above? My mom didn’t know where Fredich had been buried. My dad, who worked at Mayview as a young psychiatrist, suggested that she might be interred in one of the thousands of unnamed graves in the vicinity of the now-shuddered hospital.
After his mom’s death, my family’s next appearance in the historical record comes in an October 1928 mention in the society section of the Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion. The paper records an autumn weekend visit of Mr. Myer and Morris Toig to Fleischer’s Hotel in Cambridge Springs. Ninety years later, as we stood next to Myer’s huge gravestone, my mom recalled learning that he was the consummate little brother of the family, much beloved by his older siblings. After arrests and the death of their mother, it’s sweet to think of the oldest and youngest Toig siblings spending a weekend in nature. Two months after returning from the mountains, Myer got sick.
The story in my family has always been that Myer died of the flu. Indeed, there was an influenza epidemic in 1928 and 1929 that hit Pittsburgh and its immigrant communities particularly hard. When I eventually tracked down his death certificate, I was surprised to learn that Myer died not of the flu but of meningitis.
The COVID era has made me wonder whether Myer might have died of his era’s pandemic without ever having contracted influenza. Perhaps his siblings were ambivalent about sending their little brother to a hospital overrun by a pandemic. Perhaps, when he eventually ended up at West Penn Hospital, he encountered a medical staff stretched thin by surges of sick Pittsburghers. Whatever the factors, Myer died on Jan. 10, 1929, at the age of 30. His body was released into the charge of Morris Toig who, along with his siblings, buried their little brother on the slopes of Machsikei Hadas Cemetery.
Machsikei Hadas was an immigrant-built synagogue that had purchased several acres of hillside outside of Pittsburgh in 1906. Their cemetery served not only the shul’s small membership, but also the wider Jewish immigrant population of Pittsburgh. Morris purchased a 7-foot tall gravestone for his brother. Chiseled in Hebrew are the words “Our dear brother, young in days.”
When he died 15 years after Myer, Morris was not buried at Machsikei Hadas, but at the nearby Beth Shalom cemetery. Unlike the steep, eerie slope of Machsikei Hadas, Beth Shalom features gentle hills with well-spaced plots. Morris’ gravestone rises only a few inches, reading, “MORRIS TOIG, BELOVED HUSBAND AND FATHER.”
The next records of the Toig name in the Pittsburgh press describe the high school tennis feats of Morris’ grandchildren.
While my family moved away from the burial ground at Machsikei Hadas, generations of volunteers and groundskeepers maintained the hillside. Steve Santman remembers running up and down the cemetery’s long staircases as a boy. Steve is a third-generation steward of the cemetery. After the shuttering of the synagogue in the 1980s, Steve’s father continued to look after the hillside.
I met Steve at the cemetery in late fall. His mother, he told me, had died just weeks earlier — and opted not to be buried at Machsikei Hadas. “Mom was worried,” Steve explained. “After dad was gone, after I die, who’s going to take care of this place?”
In 2011, Steve officially partnered with the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh [JCBA], which manages dozens of small Jewish cemeteries throughout Western Pennsylvania. Now on the board at JCBA, Steve knows that the Pittsburgh Jewish community will support this place long into the future.
Since first seeing the cemetery, I had wondered why the founders of the synagogue chose this property, so steep and hard to maintain, several miles outside of the City of Pittsburgh. I guessed that some combination of cheap land and antisemitic real estate laws had led the community to this spot. Steve had a different perspective: “The old-timers would say that it was good to be buried at the top of a hill, closer to shamayim, to heaven.”
Steve asked me what family I had at the cemetery. I told him that Myer Toig was my great-great uncle. “Toig, Toig,” Steve repeated. “By any chance, are you related to Fannie?” Steve walked me up to a plot in the middle of the cemetery and showed me my great-great grandmother’s grave.
She hadn’t been buried at the state hospital. Her children, led by Morris I suspect, had been able to claim her body and afford this plot. “Our dear mother,” the stone read in Hebrew.
As I stood with Steve, staring at Fannie’s grave, I was struck by a tension between opportunity and limitation running through the early years of the Toig family’s life in Pittsburgh. Morris had the capital to build a successful business, but not enough cash to pay off the right cops. He had the resources to give his mother a Jewish burial, but was unable to keep her from spending her last days at Mayview. I feel this sense of not-enoughness most poignantly at the thought of Myer’s gravestone. In its haunting location and size, I sense Morris and his siblings’ pride and insecurity, one foot in the stability of an American future and one foot in the displacement of an immigrant past.
Rabbi Joey Glick is a fifth generation Pittsburgher, currently living in Minneapolis and serving Shir Tikvah Synagogue. If you want to send a message to Joey, email email@example.com.
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